A Remarkable Lady
May Gordon Latham Kellenberger was born in New Bern on June 3, 1893 to Maude Moore Latham and James Edwin Latham, a cotton merchant and first president of the New Bern Chamber of Commerce. In early childhood she attended Miss Street’s kindergarten, Miss Howerton’s school and the New Bern school in the old Academy building.
The Latham family moved to Greensboro in 1904 where the elder Lathams became prominent in various civic, cultural, and patriotic organizations, as well as in business and financial affairs. Mrs. Kellenberger’s education was continued in the Greensboro Public Schools, New York and Salem Academy. She went on to attend Greensboro, Converse, and Barnard colleges and studied music, art history, and languages in Europe.
During the First World War she completed all the courses offered by the American Red Cross and became Executive Secretary of the Red Cross Home Service in Greensboro. Her duties included handling and delivering to respective families the flood of messages that came during the influenza epidemic. Among these was the notice of her brother’s critical illness while serving in the armed forces. He died before his parents were able to reach him. As the epidemic worsened, and an emergency hospital facility had to be established to aid Greensboro victims, Mrs. Kellenberger gave countless hours assisting the Volunteer Nursing Corps. She was frequently aided in her office and field duties by John A. Kellenberger, a Pennsylvanian whose business association brought him to Greensboro. They were married September 11, 1920.
The Kellenberger home, “Miramichi” (Happy Retreat) became a Greensboro landmark for its plantings, carefully tended gardens, and gracious hospitality. Mrs. Kellenberger followed in the footsteps of her parents giving service to numerous civic, cultural, and patriotic organizations and chaired many committees of both the State and National Societies of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the North Carolina Society of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Other commitments were the North Carolina Society for the Preservation of Antiquities, the North Carolina State Federation of Music Clubs, The North Carolina Symphony Society, the Greensboro Opera Association, the Greensboro Little Theatre, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Trust for Scotland.
Throughout the Second World War the Kellenbergers carried out a number of the government’s conservation programs and Mrs. Kellenberger compiled a book on historic trees in Guilford County. Together, Mr. and Mrs. Kellenberger beautified the graves of Rachel and David Caldwell and, for years maintained the plantings at the famous Caldwell Log College
Mrs. Kellenberger’s main endeavor and labor of love was most certainly the restoration of Tryon Palace in the town where she was born. In 1951 she was appointed by Governor W. Kerr Scott to succeed her mother as Chairman of the Tryon Palace Commission. From that time until her death in 1978 she labored incessantly, meticulously, and tirelessly over every phase of the restoration and its expansion to insure that the palace would take its rightful place in history.
It has been duly noted that without the motivation, dedication, knowledge and drive of Mrs. John A. Kellenberger we would not be enjoying this magnificent and tangible manifestation of our heritage. The spirit and enthusiasm generated by this remarkable lady lives after her, and today encompasses forty blocks of Historic New Bern. A quiet stroll on any street is to sense the beauty of the past and pride in the present.
Throughout her adult years Mrs. Kellenberger gave much of her fortune and more of herself to the causes she embraced, and, at her death, she left exclusively for the town of New Bern the legacy of the Kellenberger Foundation for historical and preservation related projects. Some of the beneficiaries of this trust and stewardship are The New Bern Historical Society, The New Bern Preservation Foundation, Tryon Palace, The New Bern Academy Museum, New Bern Civic Theatre, Habitat for Humanity, and the recently expanded New Bern-Craven County Public Library. Such printed treasures as A New Bern Album by John B. Green III, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina by Peter Sandbeck, A History of New Bern and Craven County by Alan D. Watson, and James City: A Black Community in North Carolina by Joe A. Mobley are but a few of the publications made possible through grants from the Kellenberger Foundation. The list of beneficiaries and benefits goes on and will continue to do so.
In her lifetime May Gordon Latham Kellenberger received innumerable honors and very distinguished awards. Not the least of these is the genuine affection and continuing appreciation of the townspeople of New Bern…her native town.
(Reprint of a handout from the unveiling of a portrait of May Gordon Latham Kellenberger at the Kellenberger Room of the New Bern-Craven County Public Library, 1992).